On Marathon Monday, I’ll be cheering the runners in the back of the pack
The first time I watched the Boston Marathon, the runners passing by my spot at the foot of Heartbreak Hill seemed superhuman, engaged in an otherworldly feat. With two young kids in a stroller, I could no more imagine running 26.2 miles than I could envision flying.
I was decidedly not a runner. Growing up, my family’s primary sport was reading. From years of never working out, I felt slow, plodding, weighted down with kids and a novel I was endlessly working on. But as I drove the kids to school, as I made little discernible progress on my book, I watched the runners along Commonwealth Avenue and felt a stirring. I wanted to be one of them.
The hardest part was traversing my certainty that I could never be a runner. But the first time I jogged/walked around Crystal Lake in Newton, I realized that there was no special skill to learn. I didn’t have to be fast or particularly coordinated. I just had to withstand the discomfort. It reminded me of something a writing teacher once told me: If you’re a writer, then you write. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a runner. What matters is that you keep running.
It took years of quitting, then starting again, but eventually, I was running regularly, two miles, then three, then four. While other sports require a certain level of skill, the benefits of running come early. Instead of some nebulous idea that time put in will eventually yield results, progress is measurable: a hill that no longer feels as daunting, a mile completed in less time, with less pain, than the week before.
Even though I primarily ran alone, I came to appreciate another of the pleasures of running when I, along with my husband and son, signed up for the Harvard Pilgrim Finish at the Fifty 10K. On a sweltering July night, we began outside Gillette Stadium and ran through the Foxboro streets, as neighbors came outside to cheer, as a little boy handed out water, and a woman offered to cool runners with a garden hose. Even if I didn’t know the people I was running with, I was part of this fleet of thousands, with a shared focus and goal.
With my 50th birthday approaching, my son and I signed up for the BAA Boston Half Marathon. I trained during the pandemic, when running gained newfound popularity. It made sense — running could be done from nearly anywhere, it offered an excuse to go outside and didn’t require the participation of other people. But even more, as so much of life halted, running created the sensation of movement. Running is a powerful antidote to the feeling of being hopelessly grounded.
I followed an online coaching plan that emphasized one increasingly long run each week. Sometimes my knee hurt or my hamstring ached but I learned when to rest, when to keep going. As I conquered distances that, a few months earlier, had seemed out of reach, it wasn’t only my body that was being trained. Before each long run, I felt sure I couldn’t go the required distance. This negative inner voice was just one more hurdle. The only answer was to start running. Soon, I was incorporating the discipline and mental stamina I was developing on the treadmill into the rest of my life. Faced with a stalled chapter in the new novel I was writing, I coached myself forward with the same mantras. One more step. One more mile. One more page.
In the weeks leading up to the half-marathon, my anxiety flared. The 13.1 miles still seemed impossible. Even if I felt fine at mile five, how would I fare at mile 10? What if, at the prospect of the last three miles, I could go no more?
The morning of the run, I wrote on my hand: The mile you’re on. Only once I set out across the starting line in Franklin Park did I remember that I knew how to do this. At each mile, I looked at what I’d written on my hand. It was true in this run and true of so many aspects of life.
I wasn’t even at the halfway mark when the elite runners sped past in the opposite direction, like a flock of birds, in perfect formation. Instead of feeling discouraged, this only fueled my love of running. An hour after the elite runners crossed the finish line, I passed under the same banner to a cheering crowd. For me, it was a victory of perseverance and the ability to run from fixed notions of what I could do, toward an alternate idea of who I might be.
The prospect of training for a full marathon scares me and it dares me. I read about different courses and plan what it would take. When I watch the Boston Marathon now, I still marvel at the elite runners, but am most inspired by the back-of-the-pack runners, those who appear exhausted and wrung out, those who might never have believed that they could be here, yet persevere nonetheless.